Jonathan Zimmerman: US midterms rebutted cynical liberals who rail about the public's stupidity and ignorance

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of"Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

To quote President Bush, the Republican Party received a good old-fashioned thumpin' in last week's elections. But so did many American liberals, who love to rail about the naivety, ignorance, and general stupidity of the American electorate.

Call it Radical Pique. Way back in 1970, Tom Wolfe coined the term "Radical Chic" to mock the white-liberal romance with the Black Panthers, striking grape-pickers and other fringe protest groups. But Radical Pique is different, and much more insidious. Instead of proclaiming "Power to the People," it presumes that the people are simply too stupid to understand or obtain power.

Well, they're smarter than you think. And maybe, just maybe, they're smarter than you.

You know who you are. Reading about the war in Iraq or the massive federal tax cuts, you put down your newspaper and ask incredulously, "How can the voters be so dumb?" You imagine the American citizenry as a herd of gullible sheep, led happily to the slaughter by the likes of Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove. And you sign your e-mails with a quote from the Nazi henchman Hermann Goering, who has enjoyed a bizarre burst of popularity in Radical-Pique circles over the past several years.

"Of course the people don't want war," Mr. Goering told a psychologist, midway through his war-crimes trial at Nuremberg. "But, after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger."

Goering's quote has quite literally saturated the blogosphere; a recent Google search identified roughly 115,000 hits for it. The quote also appears in numerous antiwar tracts and movies, most notably the documentary film "Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear, and Selling the American Empire."

Coproduced by Sut Jhally, a respected communication professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the film begins with Goering's words, in bold block text. And we hear echoes of the same from Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Norman Mailer, and the other talking heads whom Mr. Jhally interviews.

But do they actually believe it? If the people are simply pawns in the hands of a war state, after all, why make a movie that tries to wean them off the war? Perhaps Jhally, Mr. Chomsky, and friends don't actually subscribe to the Goering theory of history; instead, they trot out the quote in the hopes that the people will prove otherwise. Or maybe they really do regard the American citizenry as passive putty for the Fox News spin machine. Either way, they're pretty cynical.

And, most of all, they're also wrong. As last week's elections demonstrated, the American people were fully capable of detecting - and rejecting - White House distortions about Iraq and much else. And they also dealt a strong blow to Radical Pique, which insults their decency along with their intelligence. "March without the people," Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us, "and you march into the night." Thanks to the wisdom of the American people, we just woke up to a new dawn.

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John Edward Philips - 11/20/2006

You can fool some of the people all of the time. (etc.)

Lisa Kazmier - 11/17/2006

I am not so sure you can be so congratulatory about this when there's still maybe 1 of 3 people or 3 of 10 who would gleefully voted for every Republican they could. You know, those people who watch Fox and think that somehow W's war service record in Vietnam is more credible than John "Swift Boat" Kerry's -- as if the Swift Boaters were legitimate, rather than political operatives funded by GOP backers.

Maybe the election is more like "it's about time" people saw thru this administrations smoke and mirrors, as in how much incompetence can you dismiss by blaming someone else? A former PhD student of my advisor mentioned that word back in 2001 or 2002 before the war and he worked in a part of the executive branch (one of the professional bureaucrats shocked by the "talent" of this administration). This was before Bremer lost track of billions and before Katrina. It took years for more of America to catch on, since not enough did so in 2004 (assuming there was no electoral manipulation). In any case, I'm not ready to celebrate this just yet, given the recent fractured history given by this president that most of America won't get since they don't know much about history (and watch a segment of Leno's "Jaywalking" before you tout the public's historical smarts, okay?).